Rev John Gardner (1809-1899) of the Free Church of Scotland was the first minister of Chalmers Church (Mar 1850 – 1868). He arrived in Adelaide from England in March 1850 and immediately he and the group set about purchasing the land on the corner of North Terrace and Pulteney Street, and building a church there. The foundation stone for the new church was laid on the 8th of September 1850, six months after his arrival. Services were held in various buildings until the new church, called Chalmers Church, was opened in July 1851.
In 1843 the disruption of the Church of Scotland raised problems of loyalty for many English Presbyterians but although Gardner had been influenced by Dr Thomas Chalmers and many of his congregation urged him to associate himself with the Free Church movement, he decided that the issues did not affect English Presbyterianism. In South Australia many Presbyterians, interested in the Free Church, presented a signed address to its moderator in Scotland in January 1844. Although the Established Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterians had churches in Adelaide, several influential businessmen decided to establish the Free Church cause in the colony and in 1849 applied to the colonial committee of the Free Church in Scotland for a minister. Gardner accepted the challenge and arrived in Adelaide in March 1850. He found no congregation but his amazing zeal and support from such businessmen as Thomas Elder soon built up the Free Church cause. On 6 July 1851 Chalmers Church was opened in Adelaide.
Membership expanded rapidly, often at the expense of the two older Presbyterian churches. In 1854 Gardner formed the Free Church Presbytery. Negotiations in 1860 for reunion of the three churches proved abortive but in May 1865 the Presbyterian Church of South Australia was formed and Gardner was elected moderator of its new presbytery. Prominent in the colony's social and religious affairs, he served on committees of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Aborigines Friends Association, the Bush Mission, the Benevolent and Strangers Friend Society and the Female Refuge. His lectures in 1853 at the opening of the Young Men's Christian Association, 'The Literary Merits of the Bible' and 'Missions: the Great Enterprise of the Christian Church', were later printed. He visited regularly at the Adelaide Hospital and in politics was active in educational matters and in opposing the bill to legalize marriage with a deceased wife's sister.
Gardner belonged to the older school of Presbyterian thought and had little sympathy with more recent theological ideas.[i] His enthusiasm and organizing ability explain the success of the Free Church cause in South Australia and also characterized his later ministry in Tasmania and Victoria. His Evangelical convictions and sincerity made him outspoken in defence of what he believed to be true and often blinded him to other points of view. These qualities, rather than originality, distinguished his life and ministry. In 1868 he accepted a call from Tasmania.[ii]A portrait is in the museum of the English Presbyterian Historical Society and a tablet is in Scots Church, Adelaide.
[i] Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972
[ii] Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972
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